The two most similar things in the universe today is Martha Coakley and the San Diego Chargers. Democrat Coakley is running for the safest Democratic Senate seat in the nation, Massachusetts, and it looks like she may lose, perhaps lose big. The Chargers had an 11 game winning streak,were arguably the best team in football, and had a homefield advantage against a New York Jets team that was lucky just to be playing in January. The Chargers lost by three and, frankly, it wasn't that close.
The weird thing is that both Coakley and the Chargers had exactly the same game plan.
Start by Looking Inevitable
Coakley won her primary in a walk, by 19 points; she had a 31 point lead against the Republican in December. The Chargers repeated, and repeated, that nobody, not even the NFL's top defense, could stop their cadre of tall receivers. Every pundit from David Gregory to Jim Rome agreed that Coakley and the Chargers were both unbeatable.
Jog Through the First Half Decently
As late as January 10, Coakley had a 15 percent lead. Using the old football axiom that mistakes lose games, she was determined to make no mistakes. So determined was she, she hardly showed her face in the state at all.
The Chargers took an early 7-0 lead and, with the Jets barely able to get first downs, the Chargers convinced themselves that all they had to do was avoid mistakes and those seven points would be enough to win.
No Halftime Adjustments
Coakley's "do nothing" strategy seemed such a hit in the polls she saw no need for added energy as the election drew near. She was confident she was running the perfect campaign. Slight movement in the polls toward her opponent, Scott Brown, were dismissed as meaningless. His campaigning was ignored as Coakley pretended Brown didn't exist. Brown, on the other hand, was everywhere. He shook so many hands he probably had to ice down his elbow every evening. If he was going to lose, nobody was going to accuse him of not trying.
The Chargers, at halftime, had a tiny lead that should have been bigger. They concluded their offense would click eventually while their defense would continue to completely dominate the Jets. Why waste time making adjustment when perfect is perfect. The Jets, meanwhile, sweat blood studying the first half. They made major adjustments, especially on offense. If they couldn't run the ball then, by God, they would pass it and if that meant losing then at least they would go down swinging.
As the race tightened in the final fortnight Coakley and her staff started to panic. They didn't have a game plan for a close election and they began to act and overreact without thinking. Panic led to mistakes and those mistakes led to still more mistakes.
In the second half, the Chargers were faced with something unimaginable. The Jets were moving the ball. By passing. The Chargers had no game plan for this and overreacted trying to shut down the pass thus opened up running lanes. The Chargers offense, in turn, still wasn't clicking and panic set in. Panicked players make mistakes that lead to inopportune penalties and turnovers.
The Chargers had a late chance to tie the game but it would have been through luck, not design. Football teams that depend on luck seldom win. Coakley, too, might squeak out a victory tonight but it will take a shitload of luck.
Martha Coakley should have won easily. She had an easy campaign strategy, the great majority of Bay Staters agree with Coakley on the issues and disagree with Brown. If she had run her campaign by addressing issues she would be sitting pretty tonight. But, she was afraid of mistakes and instead ran a risk-free campaign that avoided nasty things like war and health care. She decided to run as "The Democrat" and nothing else. She surrendered the initiative to her opponent and he had the temerity to grab it. Democrats who vote for Brown will eventually regret it. But the sin is that Coakley didn't give those Democrats any reason to vote for her.
If the Chargers played the Jets ten times in the regular season they would win nine. If the Chargers play the Jets ten times in the playoffs they would lose every time. The Chargers shelved their high-risk, high-reward offense. They were afraid of making mistakes and so surrendered the initiative to the team willing to take chances.
Fortune favors the brave in football and politics.